Foreword

In: Pathways to Belonging
Free access

As a father, I have long been convinced by the research of Henry Levin (1970), an education economist. He argued that the best predictor of adult health, wealth, and happiness is not achievement but the number of years of schooling. Hence, how to make schools inviting places for young people to want to belong; to come back and learn; and experience the moment-by-moment joy of giving, receiving, and learning. As parents, we encourage our sons and daughters to stay in schooling as long as possible and admire the schools who find ways to attend to their interests, passions, and learning. In my home state of Victoria in Australia, 97% of adults in prison did not finish school - the costs to them and society are huge. Schooling clearly was not inviting to them. Instead, they found a less formal form of schooling that led to bars, loss of freedom, and often financial and personal hells.

The topic of this book is crucial for every student and for our society as a whole. As humans, we strive to belong, some more than others, and there are skills to be taught and to be learned about joining, maintaining and shifting our sense of belonging. Yes, sometimes we strive for solitude, but to paraphrase Honore de Balzac, solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine. For many, particularly adolescents, it hurts to be lonely; and too many are lonely. There is an increased risk for mortality related to loneliness, approximately double the odds ratio for increased mortality for obesity and quadruple the odds ratio for air pollution (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). Loneliness and a lack of a sense of belonging should be added to the list of major public health concerns.

In our work on adolescent development, we developed a model of reputation enhancement (Carroll, Houghton, Durkin, & Hattie, 2008). Adolescents like to enhance their reputations amongst their peers. Those who do not have a reputation to enhance, or peers to share this enhancement, often have major difficulties - indeed for these students not belonging can be persistent and painful. We (Houghton et al., 2014) outlined four major factors relating to these concerns: friendship related loneliness, isolation, negative attitude to solitude, and positive attitude to solitude; and found that it is not the number of friends that adolescents have that is important because one can have many friends and still be lonely, yet have few friends and not be lonely. For many, having at least one quality friend helps a sense of belonging and is a positive predictor of positive mental wellbeing. When a person shifts to a new school, to a new class, making a friend in the first month is among the best predictors of later success (Galton, Morrison, & Pell, 2000).

As noted in this book, school belonging relates to an attachment to school underpinned by feelings of being accepted and valued by others (including peers) within the school community. This places much attention on the adults in school to develop a high sense of trust, fairness, and safety so that it is ok to learn, fail, explore, and sense-make in the class and school. These attributes can be challenging to develop for all students, and some may not engage in these challenges for fear of damaging their perceptions of their sense of self, and others may seek safe challenges and not extend themselves for the same reasons. This highlights that it is not only developing positive relations between teacher and student, but also between students that is critical to developing a sense of belonging in this place of learning. Similarly belonging is crucial at the university level; and lack of belonging is one of the best predictors of school drop out (O’Keefe, 2013). The study by Moffa et al. in this volume, underlines these ideas.

There are many strengths to the research contributions of this book - longitudinal studies of university students sense of belonging (Moffa et al.), with refugee students (Due et al.), the role of parent joint decision making (Gowing & Jackson), the role of extracurricular activities as a source of belonging to school (Cocker et al.), the importance of family (McKenzie & Smead). We need more longitudinal studies, more meta-analyses, and more evidence about successful programs to enhance school belonging.

There have been at least two meta-analyses. Moallem (2013) completed a meta-analysis of 27 studies exploring the relation between belonging and academic achievement. She found a correlation of .22 (d=.45), and this correlation was larger when school belonging was conceptualised as belonging as peer group acceptance/rejection compared to conceptualizing school belonging as emotional engagement (e.g., quality of teacher-student relationships, school safety, relationship with peers, and harmony among the different racial groups) yielded smaller effects. Allen et al. (2016) located 51 studies in their meta-analysis (from 67,378 students) and found a correlation of .31 between school belonging and academic motivation.

It is only through a sense of belonging that students can try and fail, succeed and seek more, see errors as opportunities to learn, think aloud with peers to explore conceptions and misconceptions, engage in productive failure, laugh and cry about not knowing and about the discovery of knowing. This book is timely as social media expands to make even more people vulnerable to not belonging or being told they do not belong. It is as schools become even more important to making sense of the global world that students are now expected to belong.

References

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